Loki: Cumbria’s man in chains

One of the joys of having your own blog is the statistics. I know that doesn’t sound riveting, but look at this collection of Google search terms that apparently led people to my blog:

How long does ham keep in the freezer1

Loki stone at Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria

Loki stone at Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria

Blimey – usage history2

What to call colour which shines every colour3

Is eveling a word?4

Mistress with man in chains5

I’ll gloss over the first four, but the fifth reminded me very much of the 10th-century, viking-made Loki stone at Kirkby Stephen in the Eden Valley (which should tell you plenty about the way my mind works). It was found in 1870, and after a short sojourn on display in the churchyard, it was moved inside the church to protect it from the weather. This is a hefty chunky of sandstone with a carved figure with horns, a beard, a belt, and chains. He doesn’t look too happy about it, but then, according to Norse mythology, those chains are actually his son’s entrails.

Carvings of Loki are very rare across the whole of Europe, never mind Britain, but Cumbria has two. There’s another one on the 11th-century Gosforth cross on the opposite side of the county and there’s a third not far away in County Durham. It’s assumed that Loki appears on crosses designed by people of Norse descent because he was the nearest their culture had to a demon or devil. Not that the Loki of myth was wholly bad, but he certainly wasn’t one of the good guys; his actions led the death of one of the gods. He was ‘chained’ with the entrails of one of his sons, bound to three rocks, and abandoned in a cave under the dripping venom of a serpent.

This is an era when a lot of people in western and northern parts of the UK are searching for a distinctive identity. Scotland, Wales and Ireland have long felt strongly ‘celtic’ and many Cornwallians are fierce in the promotion of their own celtic roots. Yorkshire folk often identify with the vikings, and this would be a popular choice in Cumbria, too – especially if they’re a Cowperthwaite or Birkett from Braithwaite, Haverigg or Stanegarth within easy reach of becks, dales, forces, gills, pikes and tarns6. In fact, increase the surname variety a bit and most Cumbrians could lay claim to this one.

Silver thistle brooch from Flusco Pike, Penrith. British Museum.

Silver thistle brooch from Flusco Pike, Penrith. British Museum.

There’s no doubt that the vikings were here, but unlike many parts of Britain we had both the Danish and Norse varieties; in fact, if you want to split hairs, even our Norse vikings split into two groups: ones who genuinely were from Norway/Sweden, and those who came here after a lengthy stop-over in Ireland or the west of Scotland (the Norse-gaels).

The Danish vikings were gaining ground in northern and eastern England in the century before the Loki stone was carved. In 875, a Danish army led by a chap called Halfdan walked over the Pennines at Stainmore, hung a right near Penrith and carried on up the Eden Valley. Their raid on Carlisle was so thorough that the town took a couple of hundred years to recover. They didn’t stay, though, it seems; Cumbria was still ruled over by native brythonic-speaking people right until Dunmail was defeated by an alliance of anglo-saxons and Scots in 945CE.

There’s a little more evidence of people of Norse viking stock in the Eden Valley. There’s a badly-damaged cross, known as the Giant’s Thumb, in Penrith churchyard. It’s possible that the hogsback stones at the sides of the so-called Giant’s Grave in the same churchyard are also viking, although it’s been posited recently that they’re a hybrid local/anglian design.7

The British Museum has in its collection a couple of fabulous silver brooches of Norse-gael design, which were found near Penrith. The word, ‘brooch’ gives the wrong impression to modern ears; they’re not little fiddly things to fasten a scarf. They’re both over 9 inches long and fastened with a vicious-looking spike, which, to quote the British Museum, ‘would have been worn with the pin pointing upwards to avoid unpleasant accidents’8. One was found at Penrith – details unknown – and handed over to the British Museum in 1904. The other was found at ‘Fluskew Pike’ – which I think we can safely assume is Flusco Pike – at Newbiggin, near Penrith9, in 1785. Both date to the first half of the 10th century, the same period as the Loki stone.

There are very few identified viking burial sites anywhere in the country, but Cumbria has one – the biggest yet found – at Cumwhitton. Six bodies, two women and four men, were uncovered under conditions of great secrecy in 200410. They were buried with brooches, swords, spears, jewellery and horse-riding gear; christians didn’t believe in ‘grave goods’, so it’s likely that these 10th-century Norse vikings were still pagan. (But see Jonathan’s comment below: ‘Whoa there…’ 😉 )

The clincher? A DNA survey completed for the BBC’s Blood of the Vikings programme in 2001 showed that Penrith, uniquely in England, has strong evidence of Norwegian settlement. It seems that Eden Valley folk are justified in feeling a little bit more viking than most11.

©Diane McIlmoyle 14.03.12

PS. I’m somewhat interested in DNA analysis, but add this essential postscript: ‘There was a lot of arguing in the late 90s and early part of the 21st century… but it is now more or less agreed that about 80% of Britons’ genes today come from hunter-gatherers who came in immediately after the Ice age’. (David Miles, an archaeological advisor to English Heritage) We are far more alike than we are different. See Face of Britain by Robin McKie (2006).


  1. Sorry, no idea. Vegetarian.
  2. Sorry. I will try to use the word less often.
  3. Got me stumped there.
  4. Yes, of course it is. Go read the post.
  5. They ended up at this post, which is about an 18th-century murderer who was hung in chains for his crime. Probably not what they had in mind.
  6. All these words are of old Norse derivation. They are particularly common in the central Lake District – perhaps the mountainous river valleys and ribbon lakes reminded them of home?
  7. See Tim Clarkson’s post on the Giant’s Grave over at Senchus.
  8. See The British Museum. The picture is their copyright.
  9. Yes, that means they were found at the site of the recycling centre! Once a dump, always a dump…
  10. I was told last autumn that conservation of these grave goods should be completed soon. With any luck, they will then appear at Carlisle’s Tullie House museum.
  11. The book of the TV programme is Blood of the Vikings by Julian Richards (2001). Sadly, the book makes no mention of the Penrith findings. This is the BBC report.

17 thoughts on “Loki: Cumbria’s man in chains

  1. I’ve never been to Cumbria – much to my shame when I read your fascinating blog. It is now firmly on my list of ‘must visits’!

    • Hurrah! Cumbria’s history isn’t well known, even amongst Cumbrians (hence this blog). There’s lots to see here, especially outside the National Park.

      Thank you very much for coming over 🙂

  2. What is the difference between Cumberland and Cumbria. My 2 great grandmother was from Cumberland. I live in Canada.

    • Aha! I can see that might be confusing from your side of the pond. Cumberland was the name of a county in England until the boundaries were changed in 1974. In 1974, Cumberland, Westmorland and part of Lancashire were amalgamated to create Cumbria. Purists say that Cumbria’s not a real word, but in fact, it was used hundreds of years ago in pretty much the same area.

      Old Cumberland is roughly the northern and western parts of Cumbria, and Westmorland is most of the southern bit. I wouldn’t worry too much about the Lancashire bit unless you’ve got good reason – it’s a bit hard to explain, as it wasn’t attached to the rest of Lancashire!

      Does that help?

  3. Right! As per Erica’s ( http://itsonlyerica.wordpress.com )’s Kreativ Blogger Award, I have to a) tell you seven things about me that you didn’t know and b) nominate 7 blogs I like. Here goes:

    1. I spent a year on an archaeological site after I graduated.
    2. In 2001, I received an award from the Dried Fruit Association for marketing the best recipe incorporating dried fruit.
    3. I spent several years designing mail order catalogues.
    4. One of the reasons that I’m interested in all this new DNA stuff is that, like Erica, I’m a ginge 🙂
    5. We have 4,000 books.
    6. I have a copywriting qualification. Not sure how useful it is, but hey…
    7. Whilst my family’s Cumbrian, I was brought up in Cheshire and only moved here ten years ago.

    I recently nominated my five favourite small blogs for a Liebster award (Faery Folklorist, Cymraes’ Corner, Badonicus, Lichfield Lore and Trifolium Books), so the following are bigger blogs. Still love the other five, though.

    1. Contagions http://www.contagions.wordpress.com
    2. Got Medieval http://www.gotmedieval.com
    3. Senchus http://www.senchus.wordpress.com
    4. Heart of the Kingdom http://www.earlymedievalgovan.wordpress.com
    5. Heavenfield http://www.hefenfelth.wordpress.com
    6. How Publishing Really Works http://www.howpublishingreallyworks.blogspot.com
    7. Help! I need a publisher http://www.helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com

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  5. … christians didn’t believe in ‘grave goods’, so it’s likely that these 10th-century Norse vikings were still pagan.

    Whoa there, if I may. There’s nothing in Christian doctrine that rules against grave goods, and I could point you at either St Cuthbert’s tomb or the very shiny bed-burial recently discovered in Cambridgeshire with a very similar pectoral cross as examples of obviously-Christian burial with treasure. It is true that burial with grave-goods more or less died out over the seventh century, and that that is also the period in which most of England met Christianity, but that the one was caused by the other is kind of unproven. Some historians, chief among them Guy Halsall, think that grave-goods are something you get in times of social instability when people’s status is coming into question, so it gets demonstrated in whatever ways are possible, especially at death when the social order is being changed anyway. (He points out that the Visigoths didn’t start burying with goods until they were confined to Spain, half a century or so after first entering the Empire, so it can hardly be a Great Ancestral Trait.) That kind of instability would have applied in spades (er, no pun intended) in Viking-era Cumbria, I imagine. All the same, it’s true that grave-goods were extremely unusual by the 10th century so these people probably came from somewhere else – but we knew that bit already. That somewhere else was probably still pre-Christian, too, so paganism is certainly likely, but the logic isn’t quite as simple as goods = paganism.

    What might help is more of an idea about the goods and their ornament, and the iconography of it. I mean, if it turns out that the brooches are covered in Loki images and the swords have a tree engraved up the blade, that might be indicative 🙂 (N. B. I’ve got no idea if such objects exist anywhere, I should say!)

    • Hello Jonathan – yes, I saw all the coverage about the girl on the wooden bed with the cross this week. And I’ve even seen Cuthbert’s stuff a few times in Durham’s fabulous crypt museum.

      As both the Cumbrian Loki carvings are on crosses (or rather smashed-up cross base in the case of the Kirkby Stephen one), Loki on the brooch wouldn’t have been indicative either 😉

      It’ll be interesting to see what Tullie House say when they present the stuff found at the burials at Cumwhitton. Goods=pagan was very much the line taken in publicity at the time, but goodness knows if the archaeologists truly backed that up, or indeed if the conservation process will tell us any more.

      Thanks for coming over!

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